Sniper-Suspect's Military Record Revealed

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John Allen Muhammad

John Allen Muhammad — or Williams, as he was known during his 17 years in the military — was no standout soldier, nor a trained sniper. But he was a crack shot. After a day in which Montgomery County Police determined that a rifle found in Muhammad's car was the weapon used in 11 out of 14 sniper shootings that have terrorized the Washington, D.C. area over the past month, a source close to the Maryland investigation offered TIME some insights into the suspect's military career.

Muhammad had risen slowly through the ranks after enlisting in the Army in November of 1985, having attained only the rank of sergeant when he was honorably discharged nine years later. Most of his medals were those the military awards for showing up rather than for singular acts of soldiering, although the exception was his Army Achievement Medal. (Officials have not yet explained what he had done to merit the latter.) But one area in which Muhammad shone was his marksmanship. Although he was never trained as a sniper, Muhammad's Marksmanship Badge carried an "expert" rating — earned by the ability to hit 36 out of 40 targets at distances ranging from 25 to 300 meters. He was also designated a hand-grenade specialist.

His Army career was bracketed by two terms in the National Guard, serving in a Louisiana unit from 1978 to 1985 (where his discipline record showed infractions for striking a non-commissioned officer in 1983 and for failing to show up when ordered on police duty the previous year) and in an Oregon unit for a year after his discharge. Although the reasons for his Army discharge are not known, the fact that he enlisted with a National Guard unit immediately afterwards suggests that it was not caused by any criminal or disciplinary proceedings.

His primary function in the military was as a combat engineer — the personnel who specialize in building roads and bridges on and near the battlefield, clearing minefields and destroying enemy fortifications. As a member of the 84th Engineer Company based in Germany he was sent to the Middle East and served during the Gulf War — although not in combat.